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Volume 7 No. 149
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Hangin' With ... New Zealand Breakers CEO Matt Walsh

New Zealand Breakers CEO Matt Walsh
Photo: NZ Breakers

National Basketball League club New Zealand Breakers Managing Partner & CEO MATT WALSH came out of the University of Florida and played for a short time in the NBA before having a 10-year professional basketball career in Europe. He created a real estate portfolio while playing overseas and credits his family and agent, JASON LEVIEN, for influencing his interest in the business world beyond basketball. Coming off a career season in '14-15 in Turkey with Eskisehi Basket, where he was an All Star and won the league scoring title, he decided to retire from playing to pursue the next step in his business career. That has included expanding his real estate portfolio and, most recently, becoming a CEO of a professional basketball franchise. He spoke with SBD Global about how he went from player to owner and what is in store for the Breakers.

On how he got involved ...
Matt Walsh: Jason Levien was my agent coming out of school and a great friend. He has been a great mentor and I’ve learned so much from him and his partner, SAM PORTER. Those two people, along with my dad, have been the most instrumental people in my life, from a business perspective. I’ve learned so much from Sam and Jason. Jason got involved with sports ownership when he put together the deal for the (NBA Philadelphia) 76ers with JOSH HARRIS, and he was involved with the Memphis Grizzlies, so I saw what he was doing and I thought to myself, "That’d be really cool if I could do something along those lines." … My family always made sure I was smart with my money and I was in the position when I stopped playing basketball to not have to take the first job that came along. ... Five months ago, when I found out about the Breakers’ deal, I thought, "Basketball in New Zealand, what are we talking about here?" But the deal kept evolving and kept getting better and better and now I couldn’t be more excited about it.

On the negotiation process ...
Walsh: We closed a little over a month ago. The negotiations were so easy. When we first found out about the deal through JONATHAN GIVONY from ESPN, he told us how incredible [former owners Paul and Liz] BLACKWELL's were. How they had built this incredible culture with the Breakers and they’re these incredible people that just need help on the commercial side. I read about the Blackwells and everything you read is so positive. … It was such an easy negotiation. We both laid our cards out on the table and said, "This is what we want to get out of the deal." There was no feeling of us that we want to "win the deal" or get anything over on anyone. … On both sides, our interests were aligned from the start and we knew where we wanted to get to and we were able to accomplish all our goals from both sides.

NZ Breakers player Mika Vukona lays the ball up during the NBL semifinals against the Melbourne United.
Photo: GETTY IMAGES

On increasing the profitability of the club ... 
Walsh: The biggest challenge for us when we saw the deal was we saw a business that was losing money and we needed to make sure there was a path to profitability. When I went over [to New Zealand] in December to do some diligence and as we continued through the process, I realized that this was a business that the Blackwells had done much of the hard work. They had built this incredible basketball culture, incredible culture within the offices and the staff … and they just didn’t have the time or the energy to put into the business on the day-to-day to build the commercial revenue. We think there is a pretty clear path to profitability. I love the direction of the NBL and where that’s going. We really didn’t hit too many hiccups. At the end of the day, it’s a relatively small business and there’s a big upside there. ... The Blackwells had other offers, I know they had interest from an Asian investor. When we went through the process, the biggest thing for them was they spent 15 years building up the Breakers and putting so much time, energy and love into the team that they wanted to make sure the new owners would fit with their values. … They had other interests, but I think they felt comfortable with myself and our ownership group.

On the possibility of int'l sponsors ...
Walsh: The good thing about the ownership group we put together and some of my partners is that we’ve got global connections and global relationships. We’re in the very early stages of that now, so we are getting all our ducks in a row before we go to market with our sponsorship packages and marketing packages. We’ve got some great relationships with global sponsors and global brands and I think with the direction of the NBL, as it continues to grow, we want the Breakers to be the household name of the NBL. Obviously we’re never going to compete with the NBA, but I think we can brand ourselves as the second-best league in the world. Being an English-speaking league and having the broadcasts all in English, I think there is a real possibility of that. So, I think the idea of getting global sponsors and some American partnerships is very real.

On coaching rumors ...
Walsh: We haven’t had any movement. I did speak with Rick [Pitino]’s agent to express our interest. I was fortunate to play against Rick when he was at Louisville and I was at Florida. From our perspective, we knew it was a long shot … but we figure if there is a coach out there of that caliber we’ll throw our name in the hat. It’s a job that is really sought after so we’ve had interested candidates and we’re working through them now. Free agency for us starts on April 16, so we’re hoping to get someone locked in before then.

On what he has learned ...
Walsh: When we started this process, I originally did not know a lot about the NBL. But the more I learned, I saw basketball is growing at such a rapid pace in those parts of the world -- New Zealand, Australia and Asia -- it is not that dissimilar to how soccer is growing [in the U.S.]. The direction of basketball worldwide seems like it is the next international sport that is going to grow faster than anything else. We’re really excited, I think the NBL is going to continue to rise and I’m happy to be a part of it.

Hangin' With runs every Friday in SBD Global.